Friday, 4 September 2020

Saint Peter and Saint Paul,
a parish church in Clonmel
designed by three architects

The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is a towering Roman Catholic church in the centre of Clonmel, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On this week’s stopover in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, on the second phase of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ I visited two of the landmark churches in the centre of the town – Old Saint Mary’s Church, which is the Church of Ireland parish church in the town centre, and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the towering Roman Catholic church in the town centre.

In Roman Catholic Church, there are two main parishes in Clonmel, Saint Mary’s, Irishtown, coincides with half of the old Saint Mary’s and the ancient parish of inislouanaght; the other half of the old parish became the parish of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in 1836.

A church was built on the site of the present Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s in 1810 as a chapel of ease to Saint Mary’s, Irishtown. But Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s stood in a more important, central part of Clonmel, and soon became the main parish in the town.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul above the main entrance to the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Very Revd Dr Michael Burke was appointed to the new chapel as its first parish priest. He introduced the Sisters of Charity to Clonmel, as well as the Christian Brothers, who opened a school in Blind Street (Kickham Street) in 1847.

Father Burke was responsible for extending the then chapel and added a pointed tower. Although his tower was later replaced, the bell he installed in the belfry is still heard today.

Father Burke was the parish priest of Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s for 30 years, and died in 1866. He was succeeded by Father John Power, who remained until he was appointed Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

Bishop Power was succeeded by his brother, Father Roger Power, who stayed just two years before leaving for Tramore, Co Waterford, in 1876. On his transfer to Tramore Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s became one of the mensal parishes of the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, under the directions of administrators.

Inside Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s, facing the liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During his time in Clonmel, Father Roger Power planned a comprehensive scheme of church building. He obtained a design from an eminent Dublin architect, JJ O’Callaghan, for his planned work, but left Clonmel before the project began.

The plan for a new church, however, remained, and the new church was built in successive steps, the work being arranged so that each step should leave the church with a tolerably finished appearance and in fair working condition. When it was finished, the church had new aisles, new transepts, a new apse, a new and more elevated roof, a cloister, and finally a grand fa├žade consisting of an ornamental front porch flanked by a baptistery on one side and a lofty campanile on the other.

On the death of Bishop John Power in 1887, his successor, Bishop Pierse Power, appointed a parish priest, the Revd Joseph A Phelan, who had been president for several years of Saint John’s College, Waterford. When he came to the parish, building operations had advanced but had left a heavy debt that had to be cleared before and further work could proceed. He organised weekly, house-to-house collections but he died unexpectedly in 1892.

Father Francis O’Brien was then transferred from Cappoquin, but his time in Clonmel was brief too, and he was transferred to Dungarvan in 1894. The Revd Thomas McDonnell returned to Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s for a second time, and became Dean when the diocesan chapter was revived. He died in 1906.

Inside Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s, facing the liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Archdeacon Cornelius Flavin, who moved to the parish in 1906, carried the church project closer to completion, erecting the altar and pulpit.

Monsignor William Walsh, who was transferred from Lismore in 1919, completed the church and on Sunday 1 July 1934 the new church was solemnly opened. Bishop Jeremiah Kinane of Waterford and Lismore consecrated the new church and Archbishop Richard Downey of Liverpool, who was born in Kilkenny, preached the sermon.

Dean Walsh died in December 1935 and was buried in the church grounds. He was succeeded by Monsignor William Byrne and Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s was officially established as a parish on 8 February l936.

The mosaic decoration in the chancel is the work of Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The building was designed in 1875 by John Joseph O’Callaghan (1838-1905), but was not completed until 1934. By then, Walter Glynn Doolin (1850-1902) and AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), had also worked on the church as architects.

The Romanesque style of the church was an unusual choice for O’Callaghan, but not for Ashlin. The mosaic decoration in the chancel is also characteristic of Ashlin, and is the work of Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester.

This Romanesque-style church stands on a prominent site on Gladstone Street and its distinctive tower is visible over much of Clonmel. It has a nine-bay nave with side aisles and bowed apse, a four-stage entrance tower at the south-east, a two-bay, two-storey parish office at the south-west and a two-bay, single-storey sacristy at the north-west.

The Ascension depicted in the apse above the mosaic decoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

To meet post-Vatican II liturgical changes, the church was altered in 1974, when the pulpit was dismantled and re-used to support the tabernacle. But the church retains much of its original form, with fine craftwork in the window surrounds, hood-mouldings and finials.

The highly-ornate interior – particularly the apse with its Oppenheim gold-leaf designs – is a considerable artistic achievement. Other features worth watching out for include the stained-glass windows, including some from the Harry Clarke Studios. Ashlin’s Germanic square tower, crowned with a curvilinear dome, is instantly recognisable and is similar to designs Ashlin used in Limerick and Newry.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul depicted in a pair of windows in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Old Saint Mary’s is
an 800-year-old fortified
church in Clonmel

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, known locally as Old Saint Mary’s, is the oldest church in Clonmel, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On this week’s stopover in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, on the second phase of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ I visited two of the landmark churches in the centre of the town – Old Saint Mary’s Church, which is the Church of Ireland parish church in the town centre, and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the towering Roman Catholic church in the town centre.

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, known locally as Old Saint Mary’s, is the oldest church in Clonmel and dates from ca 1204.

Saint Mary’s is part of the Clonmel Union of Parishes, with Canon Barbara Fryday as the rector. The union of parishes is based on Clonmel, but covers an area that includes Slievenamon and reaches to the Knockmealdown Mountains and the Nire Valley in the Comeragh Mountains.

These parishes reach from New Inn on the Dublin/Cork road to Kilbehenny, 7 km miles north of Mitchelstown, Co Cork. From east to west, it stretches from Kilsheelan to Cahir, Co Tipperary, and the River Suir divides the northern and southern reaches of the parish.

Saint Mary’s is believed to have been built by William de Burgo in 1204. It is the first building in the town to be referred to in documents, appearing in a letter dated August 1228.

The entire 13th century structure has now disappeared overground, although the remains of an armoured knight from that period were found in a vault under the south aisle in 1832.

A fortified church was built on the site later, and the church I saw this week took shape as a fortified church in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Although the tower house at the today’s vestry was destroyed during Cromwell’s attack on Clonmel, the rest of the Church escaped unscathed.

The main features of Saint Mary’s include a 27 ft square, 84 ft high octagonal bell tower, the eastern tower house, and the ornate 16th century east and west windows. Major renovations were undertaken on the church in 1805. Later additions were made in 1857 and 1864, and the later reconstruction is attributed to the church architect John Welland.

At one time, the tower had a wooden spire and belfry, but these were not been restored.

The church today incorporates much of the fabric of the mediaeval church. It has a six-bay nave with side aisles, a lower single-bay chancel with lower lean-to additions on the north side, a two-storey tower house attached to east, two-bay transept on the north side, and an octagonal four stage tower at the south wall of nave.

The churchyard at Old Saint Mary’s is bounded by surviving parts of the mediaeval town wall with towers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The surrounding churchyard is bounded on north and west sides by surviving parts of the mediaeval town wall with towers.

There are few early graves in the churchyard, and the oldest headstone that is readable, marking the grave of a Jesuit, Nicholas Leynagh, dates from 1625. There follows a gap until 1700, but from then on, the dates on the headstones are regularly spaced. The most recent burial was in 1958, in an existing grave, originally opened in 1855.

One sad story associated with the graves is that of Fredeick Close, a lieutenant in the 86th Foot. He fell in love with a local Quaker, Anna Grubb, in 1826, but because of his military profession her family disapproved of the match.

On the evening of 26 February 1826, Anna and Frederick arranged to meet by the Gashouse Bridge for a stroll along the banks of the River Suir. They were never again seen alive, and at first people thought they had eloped. However, those ideas were dispelled when their bodies were recovered from the river a month later.

Anna Grubb is buried in an unmarked grave in Friends’ Burial Ground in O’Neill Street; Frederick Close is buried in Old Saint Mary’s churchyard.

Old Saint Mary’s is believed to have been built by William de Burgo in 1204 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)